About the Artist
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (born sometime around 1525) sired a long line of noted Flemish painters (the others of whom retained the spelling “Brueghel” though Pieter (the Elder) dropped the “h” around 1559). Over time, Bruegel absorbed a number of influences, including the popular fantastic moral scenes of Hieronymus Bosch, and, after the early 1550s, the compositional devices and rich colors of Italy’s High Renaissance. Bruegel fused his influences into a commercially popular combination of landscape and figures with a notable focus on northern peasant life. Apart from trips to Italy, Bruegel spent much of his life in and around Antwerp, where he was associated with a major printing house; his paintings went mainly to local collectors in Antwerp and Brussels.
About the Painting:
The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind [above], painted near the end of the artist’s life in 1568, is in oil on wood panel, measuring 34 1/2 x 60 5/8 in, currently housed in Naples in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte.
About the Painting:
Netherlandish Proverbs was painted in 1559. It measures 117 x 163 cm, and hangs today in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. Breugel frequently took parables and other folk sayings and stories as subjects for paintings. See, for example, his multiple studies of and a finished print entitled The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish (1557).
Related Books and References:
Baudelaire, Charles, “Les Aveugles” (“The Blind Men”), in Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil).
Sullivan, Margaret. “Bruegel’s Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Sept., 1991): 431-466.
Art as a Lesson
The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind is one of many the elder Bruegel did on themes drawn from folkloric, classical and Biblical sayings. It is typically associated with a verse in the Gospel of Matthew (xv, 14): “If the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch,” though versions of this idea occur in Roman literary sources as well.
Consider how Bruegel composes a narrative around the small story told by the parable. What difference does it make, if any, to the “lesson” of the parable to be either spoken (or read) or illustrated in an image? Specifically, has Bruegel interpreted the parable’s meaning by giving it so detailed an embodiment in his images of the blind men? How does he want us to feel about the characters in the painting? Does Bruegel intend his painting as a lesson at all? What of the context of the parable, and/or the image of it – do they matter to its meaning(s)? Note that it may help, in addressing such questions fully, to consider how Bruegel has depicted the world around the blind men as well.
Formal and Moral Stories
Bruegel’s composition of The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind demonstrates his incorporation of Italian influences, particularly in the complex arrangement of large foregrounded figures. Consider how his arrangement of the figures tells a small story, perhaps one of the progressive motion of falling bodies. Narrate – whether in abstracted diagrams of the figures (and/or descriptions of them) – the spatial and formal aspects of the line of blind men in their successive relation to the ditch and each other. Is Bruegel telling a moral story or stories (i.e. a parable or parables) within the variously related attitudes of Bruegel’s figures, considered together and separately?
The “Common Sense” of Parables
Try to elaborate each scene in the Netherlandish Proverbs into a parable or small saying or moral lesson. Are there many possible lessons in each isolated episode of the painting? How about the significance of having them all together in one coherent space, despite their isolation from each other?
It may be that much of the meaning in the painting that was once evident to anyone is now either a matter of scholarship or simply lost. How may one know the artist’s intentions – and do (or can) they matter to an audience centuries removed from the times and places of the sayings that the images illustrate? Do other paintings you know lend themselves to being read as parables, or little lessons? Is there a particular way to make an image such that it conveys such a lesson? Do you know of other images or artworks that seem to have this intention?
Do you know parables, proverbs, sayings, fables or “homilies,” i.e. small stories with a moral, that you could illustrate as Bruegel has his own? Choose a few such sayings or ideas and try to devise an illustration for each. For example, how might you convey the idea behind one of the famous sayings from Poor Richard’s Almanac, like “A stitch in time saves nine”? What is necessary visually for an image to convey such lessons? Can you arrange a number of such illustrations of lessons into a single image? Do their meanings change in visual as opposed to verbal form?